Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book reviews: Backward Ran Sentences and The System of the World

Backward ran sentences : the best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker; edited by Thomas Vinciguerra

This collection spans the fascinatingly wide variety of short prose Gibbs produced for The New Yorker in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. He wrote profiles, Talk of the Town pieces, short stories and drama reviews -- all with a lot of wit and minimal flash. Gibbs was a journalist and kept his writing focused. The short stories are the most enjoyable: Gibbs wrote a string of stories set on Fire Island, where he and his family would summer. We get a taste for island life, including one story in which a high-living social butterfly lays siege to their house. He captures the atmosphere and pace of Long Island beach life, fueled by alcohol. His parodies of Alexander Woollcott and Henry Luce's Time magazine are classics of the genre. His takedown of Thomas Dewey during the prosecutor's 1940 presidential run (Wendell Wilkie was the nominee after dozens of ballots) makes you glad he ultimately lost in 1948. (Toward the end of his profiles, Gibbs gets into details of the subject's finances in a way that seems a little obsessive.) Gibbs' theater reviews are the most puzzling. The reviews are well-written, but his approach is one of an amateur who goes to see plays to see if he likes them -- he's basically a non-expert reviewer rather than a critic. Also, he tends to give away the entire plot of the plays, particularly the classics A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman -- plays he certainly appreciated but still found fault with. The tradition of non-expert reviewer continued after Gibbs died: Brendan Gill took over. (Chunkster challenge)

I will miss Daniel Waterhouse. The wayward Puritan-scientist, who was hiding out in Boston, returns to England in this last volume of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. He was leaving at the beginning of Quicksilver (which was told mostly in flashback). Now in his 70s, he returns to England at the crossroads -- after the ailing Queen Anne dies, will it return to Catholic Stuart rule (James III, under the thumb of Louis XIV), or will it continue on its merry Protestant, modernist way under the elector of Hanover? Waterhouse has many key roles to play has he investigates an explosive assassination attempt and helps his friend Isaac Newton root out conterfeiters, led apparently by the still-vital Jack Shaftoe, sent by Louis XIV to undermine the English currency at the end of The Confusion. And, of course, the beautiful, brilliant Eliza, is back, pulling financial and political strings for her friend, Caroline of Ansbach. The wonderfully complicated plot involves a daring raid on the Tower, machinations between Whig and Tory members of Parliament, a comic invasion by the insatiable Peter the Great as well as timepieces, computational machines, library science and much philosophical discussion -- as well as gloriously detailed scenes in early 18th-century London. The more than 2,400 pages of the Baroque Cycle are well-worth tackling. (Chunkster challenge)

1 comment:

Marlene Detierro said...

The System of the World is one of the very important books in the history of Western science written by one of the genius of our wordl but unless you are a mathematician it is beyond your ability to understand.

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